Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)
Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017
Listen to the BBC broadcast here
Written by Ben Hogwood
If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.
In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.
The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.
The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.
The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.
The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.
In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.